Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová – how the spirit of the Velvet Revolution turned to cynicism

Wenceslas Square, November 1989, photo: Gampe, Wikimedia CC BY 3.0

Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová is a political activist and university lecturer. Back in 1989, she served as a press spokesperson for the student leaders protesting against the communist regime. Pajerová also helped to organise some of the now famous protests that led to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. I joined her for an informal conversation about the subsequent mood in the country, and how for some hope soon turned to cynicism. But I began by asking her to briefly describe her role in the events of November 1989:

Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová,  photo: Vendula Kosíková
“For two years prior to the Velvet Revolution, I served as the editor of one of the student newspapers that were semi-illegal, published by the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague. And I was also head of a press centre that united all of the student newspapers in different faculties across the city. And it was in this centre that we used to call ‘STIS’ – or the Student Press and Information Centre – that we had the idea to do something for November 17.

“Of course we had done things before, such as rock concerts, exhibitions, going to demonstrations and so on. But this promised to be our first official event. And we decided to change our strategy: to ask for an official permit for a demonstration. We then joined forces with another movement, which was called Hnutí Stuha, who were comprised of the children of the dissidents. And so Marek Benda (later a Civic Democrat politician), Stuha and I went around the Prague communist administration offices asking for a permit for this demonstration. And the cover was that this was the 50th anniversary of the death of Jan Opletal, the Czech medical student killed by the Nazis in 1939.”

And was there something in the air at the time which led you to believe that this may lead to the downfall of the regime?

“Absolutely. For two or three years we had been going to demonstrations, and undertaking efforts related to journalism, music, photo exhibitions and so on. We basically used the space that was created in 1985-86 by (the new pro-reformist Soviet leader) Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia. We somehow new with the experience of our parents from the Prague Spring in 1968 that this would not last forever. And so we wanted to do as much as possible in that short time that we had.

“We were also following what was going on in Poland and the Solidarity movement; in East Germany – we personally visited Leipzig and Halle because I had friends in the Evangelical Church in Leipzig and Dresden too. And, funnily enough, we did have contact with Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán (today Prime Minister of Hungary) was one of the leading figures. But that was a different Viktor Orbán back then, of course...”

So the revolution succeeded. As a child at the time visiting Czechoslovakia, I remember that for several years afterwards Czechs seemed to be walking above the clouds, smiles on their faces, and the happy times were evident. Can you tell me when you first began to hear people complaining – saying “maybe this revolution hasn’t delivered”? What were the first sparks of discontentment with the revolution itself?

Wenceslas Square,  November 1989,  photo: Gampe,  Wikimedia CC BY 3.0
“Let me tell you about when I got the initial warnings from the outside – from people like you. Because I was the spokesperson of the student movement, and I opened the demonstration in Albertov (a key student demonstration in Prague on November 17) by making a speech, and because I spoke a couple of foreign languages, such as English, French, German and Swedish – because that is what I was studying – I heard for the first time from journalists and people like Timothy Garton Ash (British historian of the revolutions of 1989) or Misha Glenny (British journalist) or Jacques Rupnik (French historian) that it won’t be as smooth as we think.

“I remember that when I tried to pass this message on to my friends and colleagues in the student movement, everybody dismissed that kind of sentiment as rubbish. People were sure we would not repeat the mistakes made by Western democracies. But rather ‘we will have our own way...’. There was this big sense of optimism.

“And I think that the first moment of truth came in the spring of 1990 when I joined President Václav Havel on a trip to the regions. Everyone was very much looking forward to seeing him; everybody wanted to talk to him and to shake his hand. Everyone was delighted to see me and other actors, students and so on, whom they knew from the television. But at the same time, I had a feeling of them expecting from us what we could not ever deliver. I worried that if they simply believed that they could leave us alone to carry out the tasks ahead, and that automatically the bad, nasty politicians would be replaced by these good, nice people like Havel and his friends – and they will not need to do anything themselves – then we will simply end up in the same situation as before again. And I somehow tried to tell them that we cannot do it without them, but it was so difficult, and almost impossible.”

How did Czech society deal with looking inward around that time? Because it is often said that a third of Czechs were against the regime, a third were part of it, and a third were indifferent or apathetic. So when the country became a democracy again how did people have the painful discussions about who did or did not do what?

“At the very beginning of this period it was easier than we thought it would be. There was a kind of wave of optimism and euphoria that even people who were members of the communist party or their families, or the people in the Philosophical Faculty who never spoke up wherever we went and were really cowards, these people suddenly felt a chance to do something and say something for the first time since 1968.

Photo: archive of Czech Radio
“So maybe we fell for this illusion that things will be easy forever. But that only lasted until around that spring of 1990. My explanation is that the people in the local Civic Forums (Havel-led civic umbrella organisation) in places like Děčín in northern Bohemia where I come from, or Brno, or Liberec or wherever, were simply waiting for instructions from Prague. The Civic Forum in Prague in the famous Špalíček building where we were all sitting in our offices – people like Václav Havel, Petr Pithart, Jiří Dienstbier, Josef Vavroušek, Dagmar Burešová – those were great people, and I don’t think I will ever again be among such great company.

“We were overwhelmed by letters, phone calls and people coming in person from all parts of the country asking for help. They were telling us that this or that communist is a well-known agent of the former secret police, and he is now heading the local Civic Forum in a village like mine. They wanted us to do something about it. And we kept telling them that they have to do something themselves in the localities where they live. Václav Havel, I think with a sense of relief, went to Prague Castle and left us to deal with the Civic Forum. And he said that he would not want to be the head of a political party.”

And he indeed was not, right?

“Yes, because he did not know how to solve these technicalities as he used to call them.”

One of the first negative critiques I can recall hearing was a kind of pub-style discussion that the revolution was itself engineered by the secret police, and that the communists orchestrated the revolution themselves. I confess I remember hearing things like that and thinking “Oh, God!”. Have you come across this?

“Yes. That was one of the conspiracy theories that was here very early on. As a witness I can say that luckily this was not true...”

Or is it not partially true? Because as the demonstrations unfolded the communists got rid of conservative party leader Miloš Jakeš and replaced him with reformer Karel Urbánek (he lasted less than a month). So that was evidently designed to mollify the crowds, but it didn’t work. And then communist Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec sat down at a table with Václav Havel and it was all very gentlemanly, no violence, and the peaceful transfer of power began...

Václav Havel,  Wenceslas Square,  1989,  photo: Czech Television
“A real roundtable discussion. I think that kind of an event was the result of the international context at the time. If we had lived on an island, they would have just sent in tanks and the army and the 35,000 members of the People’s Militia that surrounded Prague. They were calling us in our striking committees at the time saying that we will be coming the next night. But because we were not on an island, thank God, and because Mikhail Gorbachev was still in power, and they saw what was going on in Poland, in East Germany, and in Hungary, they knew that some kind of dialogue was necessary.”

“Of course they tried to save what they possibly could of the old order. And that is how (communist) Marián Čalfa became Prime Minister (overseeing the transfer to a democratic system). That was the first moment when we were like ‘Jesus Christ! This is not a good beginning.’. And we protested against it. But because we were considered to be the radical wing of the Civic Forum, its older members heard us out but did what they wanted to do anyway. Maybe having Čalfa as prime minister helped secure a peaceful way to democracy.”

For the sake of readers and listeners can you tell us more about who Marián Čalfa was?

“He had been a minister in the communist government. A very capable – capable of everything – young lawyer. Two or three years before, among other things, he was the author of laws designed to target demonstrators and those who opposed the regime. And as a young communist, he offered to Václav Havel that he could persuade the Federal Parliament – the fake parliament (meaning that during the regime, the real power was in the hands of the communist party presidium) to vote for him as president. And because Václav Havel was afraid of shooting and bloodshed, and having been part of the 1968 generation that remembered the invasion, he agreed (Čalfa became de facto acting President for 19 days in December 1989).”

And Havel would have remembered ousted reformist Prague Spring party secretary Alexander Dubček as a peaceful role model, right?

“Václav Havel very much wanted to be president. He did not want Alexander Dubček or (fellow Velvet Revolution political activist) Valtr Komárek to be president. And he was right.”

Václav Klaus,  photo: Petr Novák,  Wikimedia Commons 2.5
But with regards to the peaceful image of (the Slovak) Dubček symbolically hugging the crowds in 1989... Are Czechs innately peaceful people?

“That is another topic for discussion!”

Let’s discuss the other commonly-heard critique of the revolution that the politicians who came in during the so-called “wild 90s” essentially robbed the nation blind, and that the corrupt crooks who did this were just as bad, if not worse, than the former communist regime.

“I was on the other side of that. The Civic Forum split into two. One of these successors was the Civic Movement (Občanské hnutí, OH) led by Jiří Dienstbier, who was foreign minister (until 1992). This movement was backed by Václav Havel. The other part became the Civic Democrats, or ODS, the conservative right-wing party founded by (future prime minister and president) Václav Klaus.”

And this party still exists today.

“Yes, but thank God they don’t have thirty percent anymore (the party won 11.32 percent in October’s elections). Václav Klaus was a very, very clever and adept politician. I would say that he was really one of the first populists to emerge after the revolution. He told people things like: ‘If you vote for me, you will have a 20,000 crown monthly salary within a year.’ Or ‘If you vote for me, Czech living standards will be comparable to those in West Germany.’ And ‘You will have two cars and your own house’ and so on. These were silly things that we in the Civic Movement were absolutely incapable of facing down.”

In the aftermath of the hyper-regulated communist system, there were clearly some who believed that the best solution to that was to create an extreme opposite and to deregulate everything, right?

“Maybe. But as finance minister (1989-1992) he was responsible for the privatisation efforts – both large and small – and that is when the big robberies happened. He himself said that we need to switch the lights off for some time and that the lawyers have to shut up. Because at the time the lawyers were telling him that the policies were not being carried out according to the rules. What basically happened is that the communist cadres who were working in the individual factories and enterprises etc. who had inside information wrote the so-called privatisation project, presented it to the ministry, and this was approved because no-one on the outside had the information. Instead of then building up a given factory or enterprise, they robbed it out, and ran away.”

The larger question here is why? Presumably an immoral regime – the communist regime – then created immoral people. And then such people did not know how to behave in a democratic society, right? They simply did not know that you were not supposed to rob a country blind – it was everyone for themselves...?

“I would say that for fifty years – because you have to add the Nazi regime as well – from 1939 to 1989, for fifty years, we had Nazis and then we had communism. We did not have democracy. And people got used to being robbed, being lied to, being manipulated, and they really did not wake up quickly enough to realise that they were very quickly being manipulated again, this time by the right-wing, by Václav Klaus, by the ODS people. The Civic Forum lost the election in 1992 and that was basically the end of the Velvet Revolution.”